Chameleonic Qualities of Chromaticism:
Combining Tonal and Atonal Elements in Contemporary Compositions
By: Jan Ezendam


After the period of strict serialism of the 1950s, composers have gradually started to reintegrate tonal elements into their works. As a result, the number and variety of composition techniques has grown exponentially in the past decades. As a logical consequence of the infinite abundance available within contemporary twenty-first century composed music, there is a growing demand for a clearly structured methodical approach of analysis of these works. Such an approach could be beneficial for performance practice, compositional applications, and education. Interpreters of contemporary music would need such a method of analysis to tackle vital issues in matters of interpretation and develop the ability to recognize and retrace contrastive harmonic forces. One needs to be skilled at handling their implicit musical order. After all, dynamics, phrasing and fluctuations in tempo are directly linked to the inner tensions and laws of these historical patterns. For the benefit of education in composition, tracing back the roots of those antipodal harmonic elements will produce new tools and techniques for harmonic conjunction.

The goal of this article is to investigate what I propose to call ‘hybrid’ compositions: compositions which combine traditional ‘tonal’ techniques with more recent ‘atonal’ ones. Such compositions typically contain interwoven structures of contrasting harmonic entities, which as significant physical units make up its interrelated parts. In spite of the entanglement or apparent disorder of these entities, they maintain a certain degree of discernible independence. One could state that within the overall harmonic system, they hold opposing functions; or even that the mutual influence of these intersected elements activates the very moment of harmonic movement, and offers the composer a new internal drive or challenge. A few questions arise: which characteristics do such hybrid works have, and what do they have in common? Does every new composition create a completely new and individual microcosm every time? Or is there a broader concept of principles of tonality which holds the opportunity to explore a complementary system in which both tonal and atonal principles are valid? It seems that underlying a complicated texture of clearly contrasting style features there is a post-modern predilection for combining innovative and traditional elements. This, however, goes far beyond merely integrating citations of old phrases. The principal ingredients for this method of composition are: application of ‘juxtaposition’ of harmonic force fields, designing multi-interpretable materials and applying horizontal and/or vertical layering.

Before outlining an initial situation in the twentieth century and substantiating four propositions for the development and description of a supplementary analytical vision, it seems sensible to narrow down the field of research, and, within this framework, explore which works and composers may be considered exemplary. Of course the twentieth century has taught us that parameters other than pitch and harmony can also form particularly vital building blocks for compositions. Yet with the advent of ‘conscious’ mixing of contemporary and anachronistic matter in contemporary composing, pitch constellations, harmony, chords and intervals are perhaps most relevant. Since the scope of this article does not allow for a lengthy list of composers and works, I have chosen to make a subjective selection of exemplary compositions, drawn from the works of Andrzej Panufnik, Peter Schat and Magnus Lindberg.

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Chameleonic Qualities of Chromaticism:
Combining Tonal and Atonal Elements in
Contemporary Compositions
By: Jan Ezendam

(‘Dutch-Flemish Journal of Musictheory’ Amst.Univ.Press, Volume 17 nb. – 2012)